Mandela achieved few of his big feats solo By DANA APRIL SEIDENBERG | Monday, March 24 2014
The towering figure of Nelson Mandela is often depicted as a lone warrior for justice and as the symbol of that nation’s triumph over apartheid.
Imbued with seemingly magical powers, he prevented that beloved country from being swept away in a tidal wave of resentment, the result of decades of ill-treatment at the hands of a sleaze-oozing, ruthless regime.
His magisterial No Easy Walk to Freedom has been savoured by millions who crave connection to him. Not to diminish Madiba’s larger-than-life legacy, he achieved few of his huge accomplishments alone.
American oral historian, Alan Wieder’s new dual biography investigates the lives of Ruth First and her husband Joe Slovo, passionate whistleblowers whose dangerous underground activities and personal sacrifice for revolutionary social change have earned both an honoured place in history.
First, Ruth First. In l963 after two soul-destroying stints of solitary confinement lasting 117 days in a Johannesburg prison, First fled to Britain where she taught political science at Durham University. She also wrote or edited several books including Mandela’s own work, and with Kenya’s Oginga Odinga, his l967 memoir, Not Yet Uhuru.
Having taken up a position at Mozambique’s Eduardo Mondlane University in Maputo, First was targeted for assassination by the apartheid regime.
In l982 at age 57, this Red-hot academic was killed by a letter bomb she opened at her office desk after lunching with movement photographer, Moira Forjaz and others.
In l960 Mandela joined the Central Committee of the South African Communist Party to impose its armed struggle on the ANC leadership. Joe Slovo scripted with others the SACP/ANC Freedom Charter and organised the guerrilla movement.
Slovo, Spear of the Nation
After Madiba was sentenced to life imprisonment, Slovo assumed his exalted position as leader of the armed wing of the ANC, Umkhonto we Sizwe (Spear of the Nation).
Held responsible for multiple acts of sabotage including the bombing of installations around South Africa, he, too, was on the run…living in exile …on and off with Ruth in Maputo. From “terrorist” to national hero, Slovo served in President Mandela’s government oddly as Minister for Housing until in l995 when he died of cancer. An official state funeral followed.
What is wrong with this schema? Why investigate the successes and travails of this particular courageous couple among the thousands involved in South Africa’s liberation and others around Africa in the late 20th century?
Still, their contribution as trusted comrades at the very top of the ANC movement hierarchy cannot go unnoticed. Aside from strengthening the ideological platforms of progressive political struggles elsewhere, their egalitarian message, social daring and achievements could serve as pointers for new generations of progressive political activists.
The moral authority of Ruth First and Joe Slovo rested on their SACP membership. As brilliant Marxist-Leninist intellectuals only later did they become ANC strategists.
Looking back, Mandela, who met First and Slovo when the latter two were law students at the University of Witwatersrand, commented: “Joe Slovo had one of the sharpest, most incisive minds I have ever encountered. He was an ardent Communist… . Ruth had an outgoing personality and was a gifted writer.”
As the years went by, in Wieder’s view, Slovo remained an idealistic admirer of Soviet Communism while First dismissed the “workers’ state” as a gross deception.
First’s parents and Slovo were part of the large two-pronged turn-of-the-20th century Jewish migration fleeing Eastern European pogroms to the subcontinent and to New York.
Out of Lithuania and Latvia’s anti-Zionist Socialist Bund, came the Marxist-Leninist Firsts and Slovos…as did the family of Albie Sachs. (In Nairobi a few years ago Professor Albie Sachs — also in the book — was among those on the Judges and Magistrates Vetting Board charged with sweeping Kenya’s judiciary of its corrupt judges.
Also targeted for assassination, miraculously Sachs survived.) Abraham Block, another Lithuanian-Jewish immigrant around whom a family biography, Abraham’s People, has just been published, had arrived in Kenya via South Africa. Hatched in the same nest, there the common narrative ends. A number of Johannesburg Jews became immersed in SACP/ANC politics.
The Blocks alongside Kenya’s Jewish and other immigrant populations focused mainly on business. Those who stayed put in Europe suffered a tragic fate at the hands of Nazi Germany.
Wieder has done a commendable job of interviewing most everyone who knew First and Slovo well. So painstakingly rendered is Wieder’s character study of the two, they could escape from the pages into your life. Unfortunately the work lacks a framing or over-arching perspective in which to contextualise events in their partnership.
The ANC/SACP, like the Paris Commune once described as a “sphinx” because of its mysteriousness, is too ill-defined to link the couple’s involvement to either of them.
Outside the ANC/SACP — the couple’s response to the Sharpeville massacre of l960, the Soweto uprising of l976, the Black Consciousness movement, and Steve Biko’s martyrdom — is sketchy too.
By April 27, l994 when Mandela became president, legislating away what Bishop Desmond Tutu called the “pigmentocracy” was a relatively easy, palliative move; the ANC, unlike other anti-colonial movements around the continent, having also contained an admirable mix of trusted Europeans, Coloureds and South Asians.
First and Slovo spent their lives destroying South Africa’s status quo.
It is known that the SACP not only wanted to end apartheid, but also to create a communist state. In the transition from colonial capitalism to a daringly re-imagined alternative society, what were the plan(s), policies or even ideals envisaged?
The infinitely greater challenge to overcome economic desperation that needed bold, often unpopular decisions on income inequality, land restitution and resource nationalism was ignored. Why were none of these goals or aims pursued during his presidency?
More First-Slovo multiple marriage memoir than engaged political history, Wieder’s work is informative, entertaining and emotionally open. But he might have taken a cue from First’s own university course “Politics of Class Alliances” where students read Samir Amin, Walter Rodney, Ernest Mandel, Eduardo Galeano, Rosa Luxemburg and others.
Wieder misses the moment for presenting their world in a salutary manner that connects it to the many ongoing struggles for social justice today.